VIRGINIA WOOLF: A Writer's Life by Lyndall Gordon


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Gordon (Eliot's Early Years) presents this dense, ambitious study not as an alternative to Quentin Bell's authoritative biography--but as ""a complementary effort to link the writing with the life""; the attempted portrait here is ""Virginia Woolf not as she appeared to others but as she appeared to herself""; and, while clearly in command of the whole range of Woolfiana, Gordon draws much of her material from the novels (including ""the revealing detail"" of early drafts), from unfinished/unpublished memoirs and fiction. ""When the voices of the dead urged her to impossible things they drove her mad but, controlled, they became the material of fiction."" Gordon's opening section, then, centers on Virginia's parents, her Victorian models, with constant reference to their fictional versions in To the Lighthouse: the radiant Cornwall memories, father Leslie Stephen's unpredictably warm/cold presence, the traumatizing death of mother Julia. Moving next to Virginia's 20 dark years (1895-1915) of self-education, apprenticeship, and mental illness, Gordon makes both plain and more fanciful connections: the shared catatonia--the inability to respond to a loved one's death--of Virginia and fictional Septimus Smith (she ""could never forgive herself this frozen time that followed her mother's death, and this was one source of her sickness, to stick at this time""); her dead father's passion for country walking, ""without signposts or maps,"" as a model for the future VW's free-roaming narrative style; her first novel, The Voyage Out, as a reflection of her self-exploration, her emergence from ""a long, secretive, and sickly incubation."" And the long final section here (over half the book) stresses the triumphs of VW's last 25 years: the break (led by Vanessa) to Bloomsbury freedom; the not-so-sexless marriage, an imaginative co-creation with Leonard; the diary as an everyday bridge between public life and writerly solitude; Mrs. Dalloway, ""a balancing act"" that reflects VW's balanced 1920s life; the exorcism of To the Lighthouse; The Waves, an attempted ""map of human nature"" to counter middle-age depression (two detailed essays); and the 1930s struggle ""to overcome the obsession with the dead""--by speaking for the living, finding a public voice. Gordon is firmly selective--downplaying (among other things) VW's Orlando/Vita side. And not all of the life/work braidings pull as taut as they should. But, for readers already familiar with both the fiction and the Bell biography: rich, often-elegant probings.

Pub Date: Jan. 28th, 1984
ISBN: 039332205X
Publisher: Norton